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Heavy fighting in Kyiv outskirts as Russia, Ukraine signal possibility of talks

Randy Mancini 1 Feb 25
Smoke and flames rise over during the shelling near Kyiv
Smoke and flames rise over during the shelling near Kyiv, as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine February 26, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

February 26, 2022

By Maria Tsvetkova

KYIV (Reuters) – Russian and Ukrainian forces clashed on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital on Saturday as authorities urged citizens to help defend the city from advancing Russian forces in the worst European security crisis in decades.

Heavy, frequent artillery fire and intense gunfire, apparently some distance from the city centre, could be heard in Kyiv in the early hours, a Reuters witness said. The Ukrainian military said Russian troops attacked an army base on a main Kyiv avenue but the assault was repelled.

But even as the fighting grew more intense, the Russian and Ukrainian governments signalled an openness to negotiations, offering the first glimmer of hope for diplomacy since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Thursday.

“The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday in a video address posted to his Telegram channel. “Tonight, they will launch an assault. All of us must understand what awaits us. We must withstand this night.”

The air force command reported heavy fighting near the air base at Vasylkiv southwest of the capital, which it said was under attack from Russian paratroopers.

It also said one of its fighters had shot down a Russian transport plane. Reuters could not independently verify the claims.

Kyiv residents were told by the defence ministry to make petrol bombs to repel the invaders, as witnesses reported hearing artillery rounds and intense gunfire from the western part of the city.

Some families cowered in shelters after Kyiv was pounded on Thursday night by Russian missiles. Others tried desperately to get on packed trains headed west, some of the hundreds of thousands who have left their homes to find safety, according to the United Nations’ aid chief.

After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin unleashed a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine from the north, east and south on Thursday, in an attack that threatened to upend Europe’s post-Cold War order.

“I once again appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine: do not allow neo-Nazis and (Ukrainian radical nationalists) to use your children, wives and elders as human shields,” Putin said at a televised meeting with Russia’s Security Council on Friday. “Take power into your own hands.”

Putin has cited the need to “denazify” Ukraine’s leadership as one of his main reasons for invasion, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss the accusations as baseless propaganda.

Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and Kyiv hopes to join NATO and the EU – aspirations that infuriate Moscow.

Putin says Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their more than thousand-year history.

‘READY TO TALK’

Western countries have announced a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports. But they have so far stopped short of forcing it out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments.

The United States imposed sanctions on Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The European Union and Britain earlier froze any assets Putin and Lavrov held in their territory. Canada took similar steps.

However, the steady ramping-up of economic restrictions has not deterred Putin.

Moscow said on Friday it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital – a potential staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war.

This could not be confirmed and Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.

But amid the chaos of war came a ray of hope.

A spokesman for Zelenskiy said Ukraine and Russia would consult in coming hours on a time and place for talks.

The Kremlin said earlier it offered to meet in the Belarusian capital Minsk after Ukraine expressed a willingness to discuss declaring itself a neutral country while Ukraine had proposed Warsaw as the venue. That, according to Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov, resulted in a “pause” in contacts.

“Ukraine was and remains ready to talk about a ceasefire and peace,” Zelenskiy’s spokesman, Sergii Nykyforov, said in a post on Facebook. “We agreed to the proposal of the President of the Russian Federation.”

But U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Russia’s offer was an attempt to conduct diplomacy “at the barrel of a gun” and that Putin’s military must stop bombing Ukraine if it was serious about negotiations.

ISOLATION

At the U.N., Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that would have deplored its invasion, while China abstained, a move Western countries viewed as proof of Russia’s isolation. The United Arab Emirates and India also abstained while the remaining 11 members voted in favour.

A picture of what was happening on the ground across Ukraine – the largest country in Europe after Russia – was slow to emerge.

Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter that there had been heavy fighting with deaths at the entrance to the eastern cities of Chernihiv and Melitopol, as well as at Hostomel.

Witnesses said they had heard explosions and gunfire near the airport in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, close to Russia’s border. Ukraine’s military said Russian troops had been stopped with heavy losses near the northeastern city of Konotop.

There were also have reports of fighting near an air base some 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Kyiv.

Britain’s defence ministry said Russian armoured forces had opened a new route of advance towards the capital after failing to take Chernihiv.

Ukraine said more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed. Russia did not release casualty figures. Zelenskiy said late on Thursday that 137 soldiers and civilians been killed in the fighting, with hundreds wounded.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart and condemned reported civilian deaths, including those of Ukrainian children, in attacks around Kyiv, the State Department said.

The White House asked Congress for $6.4 billion in security and humanitarian aid for the crisis, officials said.

Air raid sirens wailed over Kyiv for a second day on Friday as residents sheltered in underground metro stations.

Windows were blasted out of a 10-storey apartment block near the main airport.

“How can we be living through this in our time? Putin should burn in hell along with his whole family,” said Oxana Gulenko, sweeping broken glass from her room.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Maria Tsvetkova in Kyiv, Aleksandar Vasovic in Mariupol, Alan Charlish in Medyka, Poland, Fedja Grulovic in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Robert Birsel; Editing by Daniel Wallis and William Mallard)